The Language Instinct

People have long wondered if language is an instinct. If you raised a child without speaking to it, would it begin spontaneously speaking? I hear some folks tried this experience on an orphanage, wondering if the babies would start spontaneously speaking German or French or whatever, and all of the babies died due to neglect.

Of course they wouldn’t have started speaking even if they’d survived. We have no “speak French” instinct, but we do have an instinct to imitate the funny sounds other people make and possibly to “babble”–even deaf babies will “babble” in sign language.

Oh, I found the experiment (I think.) Looks like its a lot older than I thought. According to Wikipedia:

An experiment allegedly carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which he took to have been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”[5]

That said, we likely do have some instincts related to language acquisition.

Capitalism Wins

A recent article in Stanford Magazine highlighted the work of psychologist Richard Lampiere. Back in 1931, Lampiere, a Chinese student of his, and his student’s Chinese wife drove cross-country, visiting 250 hotels and restaurants.

One business refused them service, presumably because of race.

Then Lampiere sent surveys to the businesses they’d visited (plus controls) asking if they served Chinese people. The businesses responded:

235 said NO,

18 said maybe,

and only 2 said YES.

Basically the complete opposite of reality.

Social signalling is cheap; losing actual customers on the ground is expensive.

People today still say whatever they think will gain them approval, though our politics have changed a lot since 1931. For example, 89% of people these days report being willing to marry someone of another race:

PP-2014-06-12-polarization-3-08

but of marriages conducted in 2013, only 12% actually were. By contrast, while a similar number of people said they would be unhappy about a cross-political marriage in their family:

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but about 30% of (all) married people (in the 30 states that track party affiliation) are in a cross-ideological marriage.

Likewise, recall that much of the poll data coming out before the 2016 Election showed Hillary Clinton winning and Donald Trump losing.